Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Whites Of Their Eyes


This post's title takes its lead from a directive that dates all the way back to the 15th century and the Swedish general-king Gustavus Adolphus, regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in modern history, who gave standing orders to his musketeers "never to give fire, till they could see their own image in the pupil of their enemy's eye." That instruction would trickle down to other military leaders who would paraphrase it, but it became famous for Americans during the battle of Bunker Hill, fought during the siege of Boston in 1775: "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," the meaning of which was thought to be two-fold: Hold fire until the moment when it would have the greatest effect, and don't waste your ammunition--which essentially boiled down to "Make each shot count." The order was thought to be attributed to one of four men: Col. William Prescott, Maj. Gen. John Stark, Maj. Israel Putnam, or Capt. Richard Gridley (though the other three could also have repeated it during the battle after it was first spoken).

As to how this could possibly apply to comics reading, you may already have made the connection. Depending on the artist, there were times in a story when one never knew when--or why--a character's eyes would simply... disappear, to be replaced with two empty slits of (usually) white. Ninety-eight percent of the time it would occur for those characters who wore a mask, which looks really strange when you line up other people beside them who aren't so afflicted:

Sometimes the effect goes back and forth, for no particular reason:

(Cap would also have his own now-you-see-them, now-you-don't moments.)

But there are characters who spend the bulk of their panel time with eye slits instead of actual eyes--for example, Ms. Marvel, Storm, and, of all people, Wolverine, a character whose emotionally-charged facial expressions would make for intense drama, if only his eyes could convey it.

Especially when you consider that the artist who drew this (presumably) bloody scene:

...was also the artist who drew this panel:

Masked characters such as Iron Man, of course, get a pass, since it would make sense not to be able to delineate Tony Stark's eyes given that his helmet has no illumination inside it and we have only rare occasion to view the man's expression.

Spider-Man, naturally, has the luxury of operating with white eye slits, by design:

Though exceptions have been made for both himself and Wolverine, mostly because realistically there was no other option.

The Inhumans also haven't been exempt from eyeslit-itis. Like another secluded race, the Eternals, none of the Inhumans really need to wear masks at all--but those who do, such as Karnak, Medusa, and Black Bolt, often reflect blank eyes.

(Look how odd Black Bolt and Karnak's eyes appear on that FF cover, as if touched up after the fact.)

In an issue of The Avengers from 1972, even the shaded eye sockets of the Vision mysteriously joined this club (pictured here with his normal appearance):

Strangely enough, the Scarlet Witch was left untouched by this trend, though, as was the case with Storm when invoking her power, Wanda might have also made a powerful impression visually had she been given the same treatment--like so:

The Sub-Mariner escaped the slits that at times were applied to Captain America, probably because Namor didn't sport a mask--but artists like Sal Buscema couldn't resist tampering with his look anyway, resulting in a squint which Yellowjacket, in particular, made a mockery of.

Buscema also tried the same approach with Thor, though it appears that he also experimented with the Thunder God doubling for the Vision.

And there were other variations with eye appearance. As we've already seen, artist John Byrne originally fashioned Cyclops with red eyes always appearing behind his visor, though eventually a solid red line of brightness replaced the look.

So why not make use of the "Bunker Hill technique" in other instances?
Maybe because there are times when you should just hold your fire.



Big Murr said...

Batman and Robin have a lot to answer for as trend-setters...

I notice that many a TV show emulates the comics when some character Invokes Their Power (or their Curse Is Upon Them). Clever use of contact lenses and/or SFX has their eyes go blank-ish. I suddenly flash on the 1966 Star Trek episode Where No Man Has Gone Before. Two of the Enterprise crew gain mega-psionic power and their eyes get this glittery blankness as the power grows.

Sidenote: In Fantastic Four: The End, it is explained that some Inhumans wear masks as a ritual gesture of apology to the rest of the community for "looking too darned human".

Comicsfan said...

Thanks for the reminder about the Inhumans, Murray--gosh, I don't think I've read The End since it was first published.

Colin Jones said...

I must admit that I've never thought about this subject before - I just accepted the white eyes without question but I don't know why.

What do you call a deer with no eyes? No idea (sorry, couldn't resist).

Colin Jones said...

Nothing to do with the topic but I've got to mention the Ms. Marvel panel where a woman is looking out of the window and saying "It's an act! A publicity stunt" - yes, another resident of the Marvel Universe (in New York no less!) who refuses to believe her eyes when she sees a superhero doing superhero stuff in a world full of superheroes.

Comicsfan said...

As usual, Colin, your observations are spot-on! Though we could cut the lady some slack and assume that she believes Ms. M is, say, an actor who was part of an actual publicity stunt--something else that isn't unheard of in New York City. ;)

Warren JB said...

Excellent topic, CF. One I've sometimes wondered about, but I don't think I've seen it come up anywhere. (Though I haven't exactly been consumed by it so much to search out every corner of the net)

I personally think that masked eyes going white is for dramatic effect, both artistically and conceptually. For the former you've got the strong contrast of white against a black (or dark-coloured, or shadowed) mask. (I seem to remember Michael Keaton's eye sockets being painted black when he pulled on the Bat-Mask, probably for that reason)
For the latter, the character has donned their superhero (or -villain) garb. They're not the same person. Their eyes seem to glow with whatever unearthly power, real or imagined, that they possess. Ditto for unmasked characters who weird mystical (or near enough) powers, like Big Murr said.

I'd say dramatic effect, or artistic license, also goes for some of the exceptions. Your Wolverine example is a good one. First panel, we're pulled back from the action. From our point of view Wolverine is an unleashed whirlwind cutting through the Hellfire Club guards. Any indication of his focus is mostly in his pose and body language. His eyes are just that inhuman glow, adding to his ferocity. Pupils might even get in the way, in terms of narrative or composition. Or maybe that's just me, conditioned to decades of white eye-slits, like everyone else...

Second panel is focused a lot less on action, much more on Wolverine's body language. He's getting back on his feet, turning to face his attackers (or facing their direction), ready for his turn. It's all about the focus, the calm before the storm, and the visibility of his eyes, to see just where he's focusing, adds a lot to that. It wouldn't be just as effective with blank white holes. The fact that his visible eyes are looking directly at the reader is also not insignificant...

Captain America... I honestly haven't seen him get the 'manly squint' treatment very often, but that's probably because I'm a lot less well-read in his adventures than some here! What I have noticed is that he's usually depicted as in the one panel shown here: you can see his eyes. That's meaningful. With the eyes as the windows to the soul, to be able to see with clear vision, to be able to look someone in the eye as an indication of truthfulness and conviction - it only seems right that you should be able to clearly see the eyes of what's arguably Marvel's most principled, righteous, upright hero, even when he wears a mask.

While I'm here, I think some of that rubs off on Ben Grimm too. The earliest Thing had eyes buried under heavy, monstrous brows, but the convention is to be able to see Ben's eyes, and not as white slits either. No matter how rocky and strange he looks, you can always see the human and the hero inside. I mean, c'mon:

But after all that, I don't know if I can think up the reason Storm was given cat-slit eyes. Yikes.

Comicsfan said...

Warren, you've certainly (heh heh) opened my eyes a little further on this subject with your insightful comments. :) I might disagree with you to a certain extent in regard to attributing white eye slits to an effort toward dramatic effect, simply on the basis that if that's indeed the case then the artist appears to so often be misinterpreting the need for it. For instance, I wouldn't say that Ms. Marvel, above, having a conversation with Joe Robertson, is a dramatic scene by any measure; the same can be said for Storm's rather casual conversation with Xavier, and probably a number of other examples you and I could come up with. (That also touches on the subject of the assumption I've read elsewhere that Storm's eyes achieve their blank whiteness because it's indicative of her power being summoned or otherwise in use--but would a visit to the fitting room be cause for that? Or wondering aloud if Xavier had been an athlete?)

Now that you mention it, I do wish I'd included Captain America in this roundup rather than simply alluding to his own brushes with slit-itis. :) The image of him (and of Bucky) on the cover of Avengers #56, for instance--blanking out the eyes of both men in an undeniably dramatic moment (along with Hawkeye, the Panther, and presumably Goliath)--was an interesting choice on John Buscema's part, and is probably a fine example of the points you're making. Cap's eyes either appear shut or nonexistent, even though he's either in a state of anguish (which other artists have portrayed more vividly in such moments) or, per the story, searching for an answer--while the man who lies dead, who would be better suited to having closed eyes, is instead given white slits. Clearly the image as a whole is (pardon the pun) an eye-catcher--but I would have enjoyed hearing Buscema's thought process on the subject.